Libertarians Are Not Utopians

I often hear people object to libertarianism as “idealistic” or “utopian.”  One friend of mine is fond of saying that free market capitalism is “just a theory.”  Others read Atlas Shrugged and quickly dismiss the central theme as unworkable.  All are guilty of evading the real issues.

Libertarianism and virtually all its variants are about as far from utopian as one can imagine.  Though anarchists may differ from minarchists who in turn differ from Objectivists, one theme remains constant: The affairs of individuals are best left to them rather than the state.

Utopian thinking requires an almost religious devotion to the premise that if we “just get it right” everyone will be better off.  “Getting it right” of course means the state getting it right.  If we only had the right laws, tax incentives, and regulations, we could all live happily and want for little.  But there is a problem.

Advocates of utopia eventually become ruthless dictators.  Like robots in B movies, they inevitably turn on their creators.  At first, they only want what is best for all of their followers. Then an ever-tightening noose of restrictions breeds more resistance and authority-questioning.  Accusations of treason start to fly.  More restrictions are put in place.  The government claims that these are “unprecedented conditions” requiring “unusual and temporary” measures for the benefit of “everyone.”  Violence ensues, usually to the end of replacing one tin pot dictator with another.

Libertarians are inclined to avoid this cycle of stupidity by getting to the root of the problem–the proper role of the state.  For libertarians, the only reason to have a state at all is to ensure that individuals do not coerce one another or that we are not invaded by another country or harmed by gangs of terrorists.

Productivity and innovation, the twin engines of material well-being, always comes from the working of a free mind, one unencumbered by authority.  The state literally cannot provide anything material for its citizens.  By its very nature, it is coercive.  Sure, a totalitarian state can make sure things are produced, but nothing more complicated than a potato.  It is much too risky to stand out by inventing something useful, and the state would claim it anyway.  Better to just raise potatoes.

We libertarians believe the world is highly imperfect, that there is no free lunch, no land of cocaine, and most of all no one wiser than we individuals when it comes to managing our own affairs.  We recognize that not everyone is going to get everything he/she wants.  We know that life does not dish out well-being just because we are “good people” or that we “try hard.”  We understand that things don’t always go our way.  Or yours.

We also see through the Great Lie, that some earthly messiah is going to save us.  We know that countless of them are out there right now, drooling at the chance to tell us one more time that they have the answers and asking for just a little more authority to get it done.

Friends, we are in dangerous times.  Conservatives and liberals alike are twirling the knobs of the machine frantically, but it is broken.  We have to decide what we will do when it all breaks down.  Will we look to yet another false prophet or knuckle down and learn to rely on ourselves?  Will we stand by as the state rushes in to fill the vacuum or will we say, “Thanks, we can do it ourselves.”  Count me in the latter crowd.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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1 Response to Libertarians Are Not Utopians

  1. Barb ara says:

    Bravo! Succint and valuable treatise on your position.
    Reminiscent of Animal Farm…


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